The Sophists prevail in Athenian cultural life during the fifth century as well as the educational rivalries of the fourth century, teaching, most of them for pay, ideas that are original and provocative.

Historical framework

Showing an unprecedented interest in the participation of all citizens to the institutions, the Athenian democracy of the fifth century gives rise to a new value but also to a need: cultivation of argumentation. We may assume that in many cases this cultivation was nothing but the product of empirical training with arguments, whether within the more practical framework of important decision making or within the framework of discussions on more theoretical subjects which raised the interest appealed to the curiosity of the audience in a way which to some might have seemed as playing with words and constructing riddles. Such interest was clearly fostered by the Athenians’ love for theoretical σοφία or wisdom (cf. Thucydides 1.39) as well as by their interest in competition (theatrical and athletic games).

These needs can be met by a new kind of teacher that become known with the name “sophist”. The term originally designated the expert in wisdom, it could be related either to more technical or more theoretical subjects, and it was rather netural. The term ‘sophist’ originally designated an expert in wisdom, it could involve more technical or theoretical issues, and was relatively neutral. The differentiation of the group of people who were later called Sophists from those that either defined themselves, or were later perceived, as philosophers was gradual, and springs from the effort mainly on Plato’s side to distinguish his own program (but also, to an important degree, that of his teacher, Socrates) from the program of his rivals in the field of education.

Sophist and texts of sophistic content

The most prominent sophists are Protagoras, Gorgias, Antiphon, Prodicus, Hippias, Critias. In addition, there are two important unnamed texts that are attributed to the sophists: The Anonymus Iamblichi and the Dissoi Logoi.

Basic views attributed to the Sophists

Trust to the abilities of human reason, and exploration of its limits

In his Helen, Gorgias (Leontinoi, Sicily, 483-376 B.C.) examines persuasion through words as one of the possible causes that led Helen to Troy and argues that, in this case, the accused is innocent, since the impact of persuasion, though it does not have the form of necessity, has the same force (§13). According to the same text, which has justly been described as the first manifesto of the art of rhetoric, speech affects the soul in the same way that different drugs affect differently the body, “sometimes putting an end to sickness, sometimes to life” (§ 14).

Relativism

In a likewise subversive and playful spirit, in his speech On not being Gorgias attempts to refute the basic Eleatic thesis, according to which the only thing that is is being.

Man the measure of things

Parmenides’ dogmatism may have been Protagoras’ target (Abdera, Thrace 490-86 BC) who argued that “of all things measure is man, of those that are, that they are, and of those that are not, that are not” (DK 80 B1). Many philosophers rightly recognized in this phrase the origin of the tradition of relativism, but it is possible that Protagoras used it in a rather different framework, that of juxtaposition of opposing arguments, or antilogies, which may have catered to needs of the jury courts. His text Knock Down arguments which started with this phrase must have been a presentation of this technique, which would certainly be appealing in a time that favored political deliberation but also practical application in the context of jury courts (Plato, Theaetetus167c-d). The same spirit seems to permeate the treatise Dissoi logoi (author unknown) but also the Tetralogies or On Truth by Antiphon (on the view that both treatises have been written by the same author see Gagarin 2002).

Criticism of traditional religion

The distance that separates Protagoras from a dogmatic thesis becomes clear in his following saying regarding the gods: Concerning the gods, I am not in a position to know, whether they exist or whether they do not, or what form they have; for there are many obstacles in our knowledge: on the one hand, the obscurity of the matter, on the other hand, the brevity of human life (DKB4). The criticism of traditional religion also characterizes the though to Prodicus (Kea, born possibly between 470 and 460) or Euripides. The speaker is Sisyphus, who describes the idea of god as an invention of a clever man who, tin this way, wished to create a bogy to scare those who respected law only because they thought that they were being observed.

Obedience to the law, Nomos and Phusis 

The question of obedience to the law prevails in the text of Antiphon (Athens, executed in 411) On Truth, which, along the lines of antilogical practices, opposes the prescriptions of the laws, which can be abitrary and conventional, to the prescriptions of nature which are considered necessary. Another name that is also connected with the antithesis between nomos and physis is that of Hippias (Xenophon Memorabilia 4.4.5=DKA14, Plato, Protagoras 337d1=DKC1), but also the Anonymous Iamblichi. The speech of Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias (478b-d) has been often considered as a crystallization of such arguments, though we cannot rule out that it is a product of Plato’s own prejudice against the Sophists.

Language

The nomos-phusis antithesis finds and important application (some scholars even think that it stems from it) in the field of language. The question in this field is formulated as follows: Are words the products of human convention or are they connected in a natural way to the things to which they refer? Sophists such as Progatoras and Prodicus developed an early interest in language and in its correct use (the term that is used to describe this interest is correctness of words: orthoepeia or orthotesonomaton; see DK 80A 27-28, 80c3, 84B4).

Author: Chloe Balla
  • Gagarin, M. Antiphon the Athenian. Oratory, Law, and Justice in the Age of the Sophists. Austin, 2002.
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